Lesson in human decency might have saved Penn State student's life

Fraternity House-Deadly Fall
Jim and Evelyn Piazza stand by as Centre County DA Stacy Parks Miller announces results of Penn State fraternity death investigation.

The preventable death of Penn State student Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old, inebriated kid who died of injuries received in a fall while being hazed by fraternity members whom he considered brothers, is no isolated case. Consider these incidents on other campuses in the past year:

Excessive drinking during an off-campus, "crossing over" party for pledges of Alpha Phi Delta fraternity was blamed in the death of Nicholas Holt, an 18-year-old freshman at Stony Brook University in New York. "He wasn't really a drinker, but I think he liked the idea of brotherhood," a friend told the Stony Brook Press.

Michael Anthony Walker, 20, a student at Ferrum College in Virginia, died eight days after being found unresponsive following a night of heavy drinking at an off-campus party hosted by Sigma Alpha Kappa fraternity. Six students were charged with hazing in his death.

Willem Golden, 20, a freshman at New York's Skidmore College, died after falling from the roof of a three-story home during a St. Patrick's Day party near the University of Delaware campus. Alcohol was believed to have played a role, but authorities said a light rain had dampened the roof of a house often used by Sigma Pi fraternity to host events.

Each case is sad. A young life snapped prematurely due to excessive drinking and an abandonment of common sense and decency. Piazza's ordeal lasted 12 hours, half a day in which there were multiple opportunities for his "brothers" to call for help or take him to a hospital. Some wanted to, but were ignored or chastised for making the suggestion.

Excessive drinking by college students, many of them under the legal age to consume alcohol, has for decades been treated like an expected rung on the ladder to adulthood.

Only when a tragedy like Piazza's death occurs do America's institutions of higher education seem to ratchet up efforts to curb irresponsible behavior.

The link between alcohol abuse and sexual assaults provides more motivation for colleges to be proactive about student drinking. Stanford University banned hard liquor from on-campus parties after swimmer Brock Turner said the school's "party culture" was a factor, but not an excuse, for his rape of an unconscious woman behind a garbage bin. But Turner served only three months in jail for the felony. What kind of message does that send?

Stanford made it mandatory after the Turner rape for all incoming freshmen to complete the first stage of an alcohol education program before their first Friday on campus. Called "Think About It," the three-stage program includes a "partying smart" section that discusses alcohol consumption.

Such programs have value, and should be mimicked by other colleges trying to encourage responsible drinking among students, but they can't guarantee results.

It shouldn't take a college course to learn human decency, or to get help for someone who is visibly in need of medical attention, or to care enough about another person to make sure he doesn't drink so much that he could die. Those lessons should be learned at home, and early. Maybe if they had, Tim Piazza would still be alive.